Owney Dies

Owney


he young boy quivered like a loose railborne down by overflowing coal truck, afraid to look up from beneath his cap for fear his grin would split his face wide open.C. Rudolph Brand was not looking at the boy.  He spun the strip of telegraph paper around his thick, dusty fingers as if he could rub off the black ink buried in the deep furrows.

Owney due on next packet from St. Louis.

The comical cur was coming to Toledo, Brand thought.  The live package with no address.

The boy couldn’t contain himself any longer.

“I’ll tell everyone else Owney’s coming, right Postmaster?  It’s a right fine honor for the Toledo Postal Service.”

Postmaster Brand held up his hand.

“Is the packet train coming in on time?”

“Running a couple of minutes early, sir.”

“We’ve got a full load to lay up when it’s here.  We don’t want too many distractions.”

The boy tore open the door and ran out into the vast anteroom of Toldo Postal Routing Station #1.  The sounds of the mail, muted by the heavy oak frame, the thick, smoky glass, the stolid marble walls, came coursing in like a river roiled from early spring rains:  worn-down cast iron wheels catching on the loose seams of the shiny new floors; the insect-like whisper of envelopes sliding one against another as postmen poured thousands into huge sorting bins; the echo of voices calling out across the anteroom, signaling a load ready to get routed, the mail sorted and directed, some pieces set for their final mile, wrapped together in square packets and stuffed into a waxed canvas post bag, other pieces strewn among hundreds of other pieces, sealed loosely in a canvas bin, ready for loading onto the packet train heading east, or west, or the south, hopscotching across the country, to Chicago, or Lexington, Minneapolis, Cheyenne, Harrisburg, Denver, Albany, Salt Lake, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, New York.

The noise from the anteroom was like the roar of a waterfall to the thin, serious man who sat straight in his chair and tapped thick schedule book on his desk.  The country was growing.  The mail was growing.  The number of cars on the packet train was going.  The army of postmen was growing.  There was no end.  This was an infinite campaign.

The mail held siege and there was no escape.

The packet from St. Louis pulled in at 3:43 in the morning, 15 minutes early.  The platform was uncommonly crowded.  Word had gotten out that the travelling dog, Owney, was coming to town.  Clerk, runners, sweepers, shift leaders, sorters, carriers, boxers, pushers, postmen — all of the graveyard shift at Routing Station #1 ran along the gravel railbed beside the squealing train as it eased into the station.  The men pounded on the wooden side planks, yelled out high-pitched barks, cried out “Owney” like they were serenading a two-bit street lady, laughed and snorted and pranced with infantile glee.

They fell still when the train settled on its axles, the steam clouds shrouding the undergear.  Four men swung from the front and back cars and worked their way to the middle of the train, stopping at each car, yanking each iron latch free and pulling the doors open wide.

“Got a special load for you today, boys,” one of the men said.

They all were silent.  The doors opened onto the black bowels filled with the mail stock.  When the four men came to the center car, one pulled a long wooden plank from the side rail, while another clambered up the side and unlatched the door.  The other two stood facing the Toledo Routing Station crew squarely, arms crossed over their chests, feet shoulder’s length apart.

The man at the door yelled out, “Presenting Owney.”  He opened the door.

A thick, ragged dog with matted grey, black and brown hair sat stolidly in the center of the opening.  His muzzle was fell like the lips of a dispirited old man.  His haunches sagged to the side under his own weight.  His eyes were dull.

The men let out a cheer.  “Owney!” they cried.

When the ramp was laid down, the dog stood up.  A makeshift harness of dun canvas was wrapped around his forward haunches and the small of his back.  Tin stamps, metal tags and leather labels pinned to the harness jangled and clanked when the dog walked.

He looked old and heavy.

When he got to ground, he held his nose up and sniffed.  He turned toward the station house and began to trot.  He ignored the men altogether.

“What’s he doing?” one asked.

“That’s Owney, got a mind of his own.  Let him be and it will be all right,” one of the railmen said.

The men fell into line behind him.

Postmaster Brand stood at the center of the platform.  The dog was almost invisible up against the grey muster of men.  The serpentine train seethed behind them.  The rail crew was setting out the ramps on the cars to unload, readying their gear at the front of the platform to take on the new load.  They were heading northeast, to Buffalo, where the Canadian post would be laid off and intermingled.  A tall man in a crisp blue uniform stepped to the balcony of the second car and called out impatiently, “We’re ready now.  Don’t make us late over that fool dog,” and Brand cast his glance around for his loading foreman, a young man named Chevrall who was mature beyond his years, only to see him trotting in a crouch alongside the mangy dog that was moving up the platform.

Brand held his voice.  Yelling out was beneath his position, would undermine the dignity and authority that he believed was the responsibility of a Postmaster.  The order of the Postmaster was rule; without it the torrential plunge of the mail would crush the Station, and unleash a sequence of mistimings, disruptions and failures that could bring the entire Postal System, a vast, faceless network, to a halt.

Brand turned to the young clerk who stood on his tiptoes beside him and said, “Please fetch Mr. Cheverall to my office, son.” The boy’s grin was uncontrollable now. He raced down the platform.  Brand returned to his desk, where he mused on the odd quality of this dog that travelled from post station to post station, unfettered, on his own whim, disrupting and enlivening.  They were fortunate that the train was early, he thought.  They would survive the distraction, though it would take all the extra time they had picked up.  He’d heard other Postmasters curse the travelling dog, and had wondered at their virulence, but now he could feel the urgency that the distraction of the dog instilled, the grabbing, cleaving worry that the work would not be done and the train not leave on time.

Chevrall burst into the room with his hat in his hand.

“Can you believe it, sir?  That Owney picked us to come visit?  He’s been all over the world and he comes to the Toledo Routing Station!  It’s a premonition of good things, Sir. Fortune’s going to shine on you, Mr. Brand, you can be sure of that now.”

“I’m concerned more about the misfortune that we’ll experience if we don’t get the post off the train and the packet out in time,” Brand said.  “I’m expecting you to fulfill your responsibilities with your customary competence, Mr. Chevrall.  That means getting the teams busy and at work, not following a mongrel around the station.  If they can’t manage that we’re going to set that dog out, that’s what you need to make sure they know.”

“Sir, we can’t tell them that!” the young man blurted.

Brand looked at him in silence.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Brand.  I’m just meaning that it’s a great honor to have Owney visit us, and the men should feel good about it.  We’re on top of the job, sir.  I’m off to keep it moving.”

Brand looked away out the window.  Carts were trundled off the train, lost in the shadows beyond the platform.  The door closed behind him.  He shook his head.  A dog, just an old dog.

Chevrall found his men clustered around the dog in the middle of the anteroom.  Owney had stopped and was looking around.

“I don’t reckon he can see,” said one of the men.

“What do you think he wants?” asked the young clerk. “He’s looking for something.”

“He’s probably half blind, you figure?”

“We’ve got to get a tin to hang off him so people know that he was here.”

“What do you think made him come here?”

“He must have got word that we had a new Routing station.  State of the art.”

“He doesn’t get word, you know.  He’s a dog.”

The little clerk threw back his shoulders and faced the men.

“He’s something more than a dog.  He’s been all the way to Katmandu with the post.  I’ve heard about.  He’s a postal dog to his core, just like us, so don’t be smart about him.”

The old dog pushed his nose against the young boy’s hand.

“See,” the boy said.  “He likes me.”

Chevrall pulled a few of the men aside.

“Come on now, we’ve got work to do.  The dog can take care of himself.”

The men slunk away as if they were just waking up, reluctant to start their shift.  The boy stood by the dog.

“What do you plan on doing, Eddy?” Chevrall asked.  “Stand with him all night?”

“This is the biggest thing I’ve ever seen, Mister,” the boy said.  “I’m famous now.  I don’t know what to do.”

“Why don’t you call over the paper and get someone here to take a picture?  We should let all of Toledo know that the famous world travelling dog Owney paid us a visit.  It’s better than royalty.”

Postmaster Brand had realized well before the incidents began that the transfer was going to turn ugly.  His crew was hurrying because they’d got a late start.  A hamper of loose mail tipped and spilled along the tracks.  Another hamper careened down the ramp and struck one of his loaders.  A big Swede who worked as a sweeper pushed a railmen down on the fresh gravel.  The weather turned and a light rain began to fall.  Brand looked at the clock.  They were falling behind schedule.

He stood at the big glass window and looked for Chevrall.  Yelling erupted from dark end of the train and a loud crash sounded.  Brand stepped through his private door to the platform.  The noise became louder.  He heard the sharp crack of a gun shot.  The train foreman ran out from the second car and sprinted down the platform.  Brand followed briskly behind him.

As he came closer to the rear, an unfamiliar voice stood out from the rest.

“Stand back, I say.  Stand back or get what’s coming to you.  Just stand back.”

The foreman waded into the group of men and pulled a small, grimy man aside by the scruff of his neck.

“Timmy Mahon, up to the front with you, you little wretch, now and don’t move an inch.”

“What’s going on here?” Brand cried out as he got to the group.  “My men, get back to work here.  Hurry it up.  Nothing to do here.”

“Just a minute,” said the loud voice.  Brand saw a stout man with a florid face standing at the back of the rail car.  He pointed a pistol diffidently toward the men.  He wore a Toledo Police uniform.

“What’s your business here, man” Brand said.  “This is Federal tracks here.”

“I’m patrolling over in the yard and saw this big man swinging a board at that small one, so I’m stopping this from being an all out brawl, don’t you know that, so don’t tell me what to do.”

The big Swede hung his head down and stood at the side of the car.  The rail foreman looked at Brand.

“I’ll take the resonsibility.  It’s this one here, he’s no good.  My sister’s son, and I’m giving him a chance, but he’s picking fights at every stop we got.  No fault of your man.  We’ve got to pick it up so we can get on schedule.”

The constable was bright red in the face.  Brand could see that he was young, that he wanted to do what he thought was the right thing, and that he’d waded into something bigger than he could fathom.

“Come on then, son, let’s go up to my office and call a report in to your station head.  These men can get to work and we can get them out of here.”

The constable looked around and let his gun drop to his side.

“That’s a good idea, sir.  May I ask your name?”

“I’m Postmaster C. Rudolph Brand.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.  I’m Constable Fred Free.  Where should we make that call?”

As Brand led the constable down the platform, the men fell back to work, their rhythmn shocked by on track by the discharge of the gun.  He checked his pocket watch.  They would finish the transfer only 10 minutes late, he calculated, at this rate.

For a moment, he did not register the scream, it was so sharp and high-pitched that he mistook it for the squeal of iron brake pads against rail wheels, or the death cry of a game bird cornered by a hunting dog that’s smelled blood, or the haunting cries of the nocturnal spirits that travelers said haunted the jungles of the Amazon.

Constable Free recognized the sound in an instant.  In the newspaper story that followed, the first of many, a story that Postmaster Brand poured over as he sat alone in his rooms, trying to understand what had happened and why, Constable Free described the cry as the same sound his grandfather had made to invoke the cry of the Confederate wounded at the Battle of Vicksburg, men who were destined to die in a moment, who were crying out in sorrow and depair.  The Constable raised his gun and sprinted down the platform to the open arch of the anteroom.  Brand was forced to run after him.  He entered the anteroom moments after the Constable and skidded to stop.

The Constable had dropped into a crouch and slipped across the marble floor like a fencer.  His pistol wavered at the end of his rigid arm.

In the center of the floor, the dog Owney was straining at a thick rope that had been looped around his neck and fastened to a metal stanchion.  His tongue was slick with white slather and thrust from his mouth he time he lunged.  Except for the jangling of the the tins and iron plates and medals, the dog was silent.

Beyond his reach the young clerk sat on his hindquarers clasping his forearm.  Blood spilled between his fingers.  He was moaning.  His eyes were squeezed tight, as if he could make everything go away.

“Hold still, boy, he can’t get you,” the Constable whispered, advancing on the dog.

“What have you done to Owney?” a loud voice behind Brand demanded.

“The dog’s mad,” one of the loaders yelled.  “He’s attacked Eddy.  See!”

The foreman from the train pushed past Brand.

“You can’t tie Owney up.  He goes where he wants.”

The constable had arrived behind the old dog.  He lowered the gun slightly and pulled the trigger.  The blast was deafening.  The dog dropped to the floor.

The report of the pistol caromed off the high ceiling, repeated itself over and over, a faint murmur of prayer.  Brand felt his shoulders fall, but could not help himself. Constable Free fell back in dismay as the foreman threw his fists out, striking at the florid man.  The gun fell to the floor with a sharp crack.  Brand watched it spin.  Young Eddy cried out, “Owney,” as his fellows came to his aid.

“He needs a doctor,” Brand said.  Chevrall stood framed in the archway to the platform, stunned.  “Get the boy a doctor,” Brand repeated calmly.

The foreman beat at the constable.  No one intefered.  The florid man was senseless.

Brand walked across the marble to the dead dog.  He had fallen to his side in a final repose.  Brand crouched next to him.  The animal was foul smelling, the essence of oil, smoke, mold and the enervating rot of age lifting from his body.

There was a dull brass tag on his collar.  Brand fingered it.

“Owney Albany Post Office.”

He grimaced.  A small typographical error — a ’y’ in the place of an ’r’ — had given the animal the freedom to wander around the world, rail packet by rail packet, station by station.  Brand could see his future clearly.  He was the man who had killed Owney the Dog.

He lifted the body and clasped it against his chest.  He carried the dog into his private room, where he sat in his chair and watched the engine steaming beyond the platform.  He stroked Owney’s foul, matted hair and waited until he could decide what to do.

Owney was a stray dog who wandered into the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. The clerks let him stay the night, and he fell asleep on a pile of empty mailbags. Owney was attracted to the texture or scent of the mailbags and began to follow them, first onto mail wagons and then onto mail trains. Owney began to ride with the bags on Railway Post Office (RPO) train cars across the state, and then the country. The RPO clerks adopted Owney as their unofficial mascot, marking his travels by placing medals and tags from his stops on his collar.

* * * * *

This story is part of a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

JW Rogers lives in New York with his wife, three children, three dogs and four manual typewriters. His other contributions to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

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3 Comments

  1. What an extraordinary piece of writing and heart wrenching story. The photos are the introduction and the conclusion of a precious railway tradition with Owney, metaphor of the
    heartless gestures we’ve created in the name of progress.

    Reply
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